The Film Noir Odyssey
Writer: Mel Dinelli
Based on: “A Question of Time” radio play by Maurice Zimm
Director: John Sturges
Cinematographer: Victor Milner
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Ralph Meeker, Barry Sullivan, Lee Aaker
Release: March 30, 1953
Percent Noir: 50%
Barbara Stanwyck is the queen of film noir, but we all know that she was in as many stinkers as she was masterpieces. And that’s okay – even in her worst films, Stanwyck was still awesome, and it made you appreciate her professionalism. So when I viewed the opening credits of this little-seen, little-discussed one-hour-and-ten-minute noir and they were in the font of a bad ‘50s monster movie, I didn’t hold out much hope. Boy was I wrong.
Sure, it starts pretty badly. Stanwyck’s character Helen is given some bland (bland!) filler voiceover to pad the running time, going on about travelling and Tijuana in a film that has little to do with the former and nothing to do with the latter. But as the actual story is set into motion, things get interesting. Helen, her husband Doug (Barry Sullivan) and their young son Bobby (Lee Aaker) are vacationing in a remote part of Mexico. They set up next to an abandoned, falling-apart jetty, and thanks to an accident Doug gets his leg stuck under a pole of wood. He’s fine, but trapped, and no one panics… until they realize the tide is coming in and will drown Doug within four hours unless they get him free. Uh oh. Helen races to get help and rope to move the wood, but it’s at least an hour’s drive to anywhere with human beings.
In other words, things suck. They get worse when Helen accidentally picks up an escaped murderer named Lawson (Ralph Meeker) and is suddenly thrust into a battle of wills with him. He wants to get out of the area before the police find him, she just wants to get back to help her husband. And all through this, the tide continues to come in…
Once the story gets moving, it’s a doozy. Better than that, no one acts stupid. Helen tries to use the car’s jack to get the wood off her husband (why did it feel dirty typing that?). She tries to get away every chance she can once Lawson shows his true colors, and physically fights him often so she can escape (one fight in particular seems so real I’m surprised Meeker didn’t come away with scratches on his face). Though at first Helen seems no more than a cardboard wife character, the more desperate she gets, the more interesting she becomes.
And once Lawson enters the picture, it’s impossible to look away. I am not familiar with much of Meeker’s work aside from “Kiss Me Deadly,” but damn the dude is talented. He has firecracker chemistry with Stanwyck, and though he is a vile, despicable guy, Meeker makes you like his swagger and personality from the moment he starts eating Helen’s crackers (not a metaphor). I almost wonder if they rewrote the ending of the film to give Meeker some redemption and the possibility of escape once they realized that the audience would immediately fall for him.
Meeker and Stanwyck take part in a very interesting scene at an abandoned house. An increasingly desperate Helen knows her husband only has a few minutes left, so she tries her hand at seducing Lawson. And since it’s Barbara Stanwyck, she does a damn good job at it. You really believe her when she makes sex eyes at Lawson and says “I’ll do anything to save my husband.” Lawson says that, if he helps Doug, Helen will have to go away with him and pretend to be his wife so that, when they are stopped at roadblocks, the police believe them. Helen agrees, and then the duo begin to make out. They kiss, trade insults, then kiss again. Lawson says that he doesn’t like this, kisses her once more, and they cut away. Does Helen have sex with Lawson? Probably. I’m legitimately shocked that they allowed this content in a film in 1953 but hey, good for them. I love moral ambiguity.
Also outstanding is the finale, where Lawson redeems himself by rescuing Doug in a nailbiting sequence (Sullivan seems legitimately trapped as he’s getting smacked hard by some pretty intense waves). And once he does, Helen holds up her end of the bargain by offering to leave with him. But Lawson tells her to stay with her family, then has to run when he sees the police approaching. He and Helen shake hands, and I found myself oddly moved by the moment. The movie also doesn’t even imply that Lawson will be caught – we see him escaping and have hope that he’ll get away.
There are also a bunch of small moments within the subplot of Doug and Bobby waiting at the jetty for Helen to return that just shine. When the water gets fairly high and Doug suspects Helen might not make it in time, he has a frank conversation with his son, telling Bobby that, if he dies, that Bobby still needs to stay there by the car so that he doesn’t get lost in the desert before Helen can return. Then, when Helen and Lawson arrive in the nick of time, they find Bobby embracing his father as the waves smash into the two men. It’s beautiful and touching.
Also impressive are the locations. Director John Sturges and cinematographer Victor Milner either built the creepiest jetty I’ve ever seen or found the perfect one on location. It just gives you the chills. And the sequences where Doug is trapped and the tide envelops him are brilliantly staged and choreographed – I’m certain part was done in studio, but I’ll be damned if I can tell the difference between the location shooting and the stuff done on the lot.
The crew list is an embarrassment of riches – seriously, what were all these great filmmakers doing on this little tiny B-movie? I’m not complaining, but still. First, we’ve got composer Dimitri Tiomkin, who did scores for little movies like “High Noon,” “Dial M For Murder,” “The Fall of the Roman Empire” and “The Guns of Navarone.” Cinematographer Milner was reaching the end of a storied career that included such diverse masterpieces as Lubisch’s “Trouble in Paradise,” DeMille’s “Cleopatra,” Preston Sturges’ “The Lady Eve” and “The Palm Beach Story.” Perhaps the one guy who seemed fit for the project was screenwriter Mel Dinelli, who wrote great (but underseen) noir films like “The Spiral Staircase,” “The Reckless Moment” and “House by the River.”
And then there’s director John Sturges, who would go on to helm the wonderful “Bad Day at Black Rock,” “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Great Escape.” Here he keeps the movie moving along at a breakneck pace, building to a fever pitch that you won’t forget and making things like tricky locations and an incoming tide look simple to shoot.
“Jeopardy” really blew me away. For a movie that starts with horrible voiceover that makes you cringe, by the end of the brief running time I cared about everyone involved to the point that I was at the edge of my couch. If you’ve never seen it, track it down, pronto.